Akio Suyematsu honored by Friends of the Farms
By CONNIE MEARS
Bainbridge Island Review Staff Writer
May 13, 2010 · 4:18 PM
A lot has been written about Akio Suyematsu. In the Review, Kitsap Sun, The Seattle Times, and the book “The Earth Knows My Name.”
If you ask him, it’s all too much. As a second-generation Japanese, or Nisei, Suyematsu’s cultural roots are evident in his disciplined work ethic and utmost humility.
He is a master of deflection. At 88, he nimbly ducks, dodges, redirects all attempts to compliment him, which he says, in his succinct way, are a “waste of time.”
So Trust for Working Landscapes, now Friends of the Farms, has a tough row to hoe as it sets out to honor Suyematsu for his contribution to Bainbridge agriculture.
It took Bart Berg, president of the Friends’ board of directors, three hours to convince Suyematsu that the nonprofit advocacy group was creating an annual award named after him – “whether he likes it or not.”
“He said, ‘Give it to somebody else,’” Berg said.
There is no one else, in Berg’s mind, as deserving as Suyematsu.
“There’s a tremendous history of agriculture on this island, and only Akio absolutely represents that history,” he said.
Suyematsu still works daily on the land that his family cleared with two horses and dynamite back in 1928.
He returned to Bainbridge after his family was released from internment camps during World War II, only to find the fields overgrown with weeds and brambles.
Some 60 years later, he’s still clearing. This winter he removed Christmas trees to make room for more pumpkins. The shift allows more land for fellow farmer Karen Selvar.
Like the Meeker raspberry plants he grows — which send out runners, offshoots from the main plant — a number of local farmers, including Selvar, have learned farming from working side-by-side with Suyematsu in the field.
Selvar started picking strawberries on his farm when she was 9 years old. Brian MacWhorter, Betsey Wittick, and now, a new crop of young interns, are carrying on Suyematsu’s legacy.
Still, Suyematsu discounts his part.
“Raspberries aren’t important,” he said, pointing at MacWhorter. “He grows vegetables.”
MacWhorter countered with the fact that Suyematsu has tomatoes, zucchini and radishes growing in the greenhouse. Suyematsu allows a slight smile to light his face.
MacWhorter said it took years before Suyematsu warmed to him.
“Akio’s knowledge is very important,” MacWhorter said.
Predictably, Suyematsu bats away such assertions.
“Brian and Karen are still here. It’s still gonna go,” he said, referring to an inevitable post-Suyematsu era.
“That’s just not true,” Berg contended. “All the big equipment he has, and the knowledge of how to repair it, is essential to successful farming at that scale.”
Finally, a fact that even Suyematsu can’t deny.
“I do all the repairs on the equipment. A farm has to have a repair mechanic or they can’t make it go,” he said.
Suyematsu has been generous in loaning his fleet of tractors and implements – 15 to 20 rigs, some rusty, some new – so that new farmers can get started.
“Akio has said, ‘Nobody could start farming now – because the front-end costs are so high.’” Berg said. “Akio is holding us all together.”
Fortuitously, Suyematsu developed mechanical skills as a young man in welding school, when he was hoping to become a mechanic. He said he probably would have made more money as a mechanic than from farming.
Still, because of the real estate boom of the 90s, Suyematsu is a wealthy man – on paper. But Suyematsu doesn’t live on paper. He lives on the land, outdoors under the big sky. Sometimes it’s bucolic, other times fierce with the elements of sun, rain and wind. No matter what the weather, every day he’s out there in the field, riding a tractor, fixing a tractor, riding, fixing, planting to the rhythm of the seasons.
In his sunset years, he wonders about roads not taken.
“I didn’t ever get married,” he said. “All my brothers and sisters did – but they’re gone now. Just one brother and sister left. And they’re both younger than me.”
In all, he has no regrets.
“Farming is a good life,” he said Tuesday, outside on his farm. Which is exactly where he’ll be Sunday when Friends attempts to heap praise and appreciation on him.
Um, good luck with that.
Friends of the Farms’ annual meeting is at 4 p.m. May 16 at Suyematsu/Bentryn Farm at Day Road. Enjoy a grape cane bonfire, maypole, live music and presentation of the first annual Akio Suyematsu Award. Potluck dinner with plates, utensils and beverages provided. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, visit firstname.lastname@example.org or (206) 842-6613.